Malcolm Nance, MSNBC’S former military and counter-terrorism expert, is always fighting someone.
As a personal and professional acquaintance of Nance, I was not the least bit surprised when the literary agent to whom I had introduced him a few months ago, interrogated me about whether I knew that Nance had joined the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine in March.
“I had no idea,” I replied, extremely unshocked. “But it sounds exactly like something Nance would do. It’s the most Malcolm thing ever. ”
Whether jousting with his conservative critics on social media or battling the trend toward authoritarianism that has invaded American politics, Nance has spent most of his life defending the values he endorses. He participated in US combat operations, taught Survival, Evasion, Resistance (Sere) and created advanced programs for the US military. His 20 years of experience in intelligence, counter-terrorism and cryptology as a chief petty officer in the United States navy made him one of the most sought-after intelligence experts in the media. Although his books Defeating Isis and The Plot to Hack America presaged Putin’s invasion of American elections and Ukraine, Nance is not a war correspondent or a pundit.
When I interviewed him about his recent decision to take up arms in Ukraine, the telephone conversation was typical of our many conversations.
First, let me ask you, as a journalist, not as a friend: what the hell, Malcolm?
Well, what made me decide to do this was a couple of things. But the precipitating event of course, was the invasion of Ukraine. I spent a month in Ukraine, driving around, mapping out the Russian order of battle, driving up and down the highways and analyzing where the invasion routes would come and go. So I knew the country backward and forwards by the time of the invasion. In fact, on the day of the invasion, just by happenstance, I got on the last Lufthansa flight out of the country. A couple of hours later they had leveled the airport.
Plus, I’m a widower, which means I understand grief, which is a powerful motivator in this instance. It was the thought of all of the grief this country was taking in that invasion. And I just thought, this is, this was completely uncalled for, this is insanity. To think that I could go to bed and wake up, and these women would just be massive piles of dead bodies and body armor, it just upset me.
So how did you make this happen? Did you just show up with a gun and say, “I’m here to help?”
[Laughing] Ukraine announced that there was an international force on February 27 and I started looking into it on February 28… I called the Ukrainian embassy in Washington and I said: ‘Hey, I want an appointment.’ They were a little slow, so I just went down there and put in my application. The guy asked if I had combat experience and I said ‘Yep.’ Then he looked at my application and said, ‘You’re on the team.’
How long has it been since you were in a combat zone?
When was the last thing I did, when did I go to Iraq? I moved back to the States in 2016. So 2015, so seven years. When you guys go: ‘Oh yeah. That’s what Malcolm would do, ‘you have to understand that Malcolm maintains his weapons proficiency all the time. I’m a collector of firearms and, because I was an intelligence contractor, I just have it in my mind to maintain my proficiency. I’m that kind of guy.
Despite the fact that Russian television put my name, face and everything I say on television (except the part about mass murdering civilians) and called me a “soldier of fortune”, this ain’t about money. We get paid $ 600 a month. But I believe in the defense of democracy. Even though my rightwing critics don’t believe me or the lies they tell, I actually believe in the things that I espouse on television.
One of the criticisms leveled against you is that you are willing to fight for an army that has been accused of mistreating people of African descent and serving an international training ground for white supremacists.
The Ukrainian army is 250,000 people who are mostly white and mostly small. You know where I can actually show you more Nazis? Aside from the US army, that is? Russia’s Wagner Group is filled with Nazis. The leader of their group of mercenaries has all sorts of Nazi tattoos all over his body. Look, this is a country of 42 million Caucasians, so, statistically, the US probably has a bigger Nazi contingent. I traveled around this country with Terrell Starr and the Afro-Ukrainian community here and I’ve seen fewer Nazis than I’ve seen in America.
Quick aside on that, I always mention that Eugene Bullard was the first Black pilot to fly in the first world war. But he flew with the Lafayette Flying Corps for France because, as an African American, he was not allowed to fly in his country. In the end, 269 Americans flew in that squadron. He was the only Black pilot. From 1914 to 1917, he was a French legionnaire fighting in Verdun and was wounded three times. So there is a tradition of African Americans fighting in defense of democracy. I’m sure we could find some in the Spanish civil war, but Hemingway didn’t write about that. African Americans have always fought for the freedom of others, even when they didn’t have it themselves.
But I know there is a lot of criticism. And to be honest, what upsets them the most is that I’m Black. It’s not about how we view the rest of the world. It’s about how we view ourselves in that world – as free people. And that’s what upsets them the most. People have a problem with believing African Americans have ideals and that we stand for what we believe. When you compare the percentage of African Americans in the country to the percentage in the armed forces, we fight disproportionately for the country.
So when you wake up in the morning, what happens?
Well, it depends on where I am and what I’m doing. I get up at 4am because I like to be up early. There’s a routine depending on where you are. I get up at four and what I do is I read, I read the news. I try to feel the battlefront based on Ukrainian news and reporting. And then I look at expert analysis from the previous night in the west. If we have PT, we do PT [physical training]. No matter where I am, no matter what I’m doing, I constantly check my gear. If I’m in a safe house on a press junket, like I am now, I go over all of my gear. I reorganize my pack. I assume that I will have to take everything, get up and run with it or move to a forward location.
Right now, part of my duty is to the press. They were well aware that I was a high-level asset. So, instead of putting me out on the line, I’m in a safe house talking to people like you.
For people who are totally ignorant of how the military works, is this legion part of the Ukrainian army of people who are not Ukrainian citizens? Or is it a legion organized outside of the Ukrainian military?
What happened here early on is when Zelenskiy made this call, they started forming TDUs – territorial defense units. TDUs were really just men in your neighborhood who, under the state of emergency, had to enlist and register as part of a territory. It’s like every neighborhood in Chicago organizing a military unit in anticipation of an invasion.
The difference is, the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine is a branch of the Ukrainian army. We are an organized combat element with contracts signed by the Ukrainian army. We are paid by the Ukrainian army and get a Geneva convention ID card. So if a brigade has five battalions and they are on the line and they need more enforcement, they will get a legion unit to give them more manpower. But the legion operates almost exclusively in English, although there is a French squad that generally operates in French, and some Japanese and Koreans also.
What do you think your ultimate value is here?
My ultimate value is that I have experience at this. Now, look, I’m not an infantry guy. But despite what critics on Twitter who watch Rambo may think, combat isn’t about being a murdering, Seal Team Six assassin; it’s mainly about precision, accurate fire, selective fire, keeping people calm, getting on the line and moving forward. For almost 15 of my 20 years, my middle name was, ‘I need a Black guy who speaks Arabic’. When I was at the NSA, I was being loaned out everywhere, so I’ve seen a lot and conducted missions behind or near enemy lines. If I was a white guy, I would be a hero. But with some people, it’s just as simple as: ‘You are Black; you can’t have anything exceptional in your life, nothing. ‘ They can’t imagine that I’m here for altruistic reasons.
And this might explain why Eugene Bullard was in the French Foreign Legion and not the US army. There are a lot of African Americans and young Americans who have been in the military who are gonna see this and are gonna be inspired: this is essentially the French Foreign Legion, and it will be part of the pantheon of the defense of democracy in the defense of Ukraine… My dad was one of the first Black master chiefs in the navy. This is just who I am. I’m African American, but by God, I’m American.